Exercise is obviously a physical activity, but it requires a heck of a lot of mental work, too. And if you've ever tried to muster the motivation to start moving or work out harder, you know a little something about that. But you also know that once you do dig deep, it's always so worth it.
So, how can you get past the hump and motivate yourself to work out or push yourself harder during your workout? And without the unhealthy "no pain no gain" mentality? (Because, yes, exercise should actually be fun and never cause pain!)
It's not as difficult as you think.
We asked trainers — whose job is, in part, to encourage their clients to challenge themselves — to share some of their workout motivation tricks. Try one or a couple the next time you're needing help working out harder.
1. Commit to 2 or 3 Moves
Starting a workout is the hardest part, but once you get moving, there's a good chance you'll feel energized and want to keep pushing yourself to exercise.
"I tell my clients when they don't feel like working out that I fully support them, but that I need them to try the first two to three movements before making that decision," says Chelsy Pillsbury, CPT, a certified personal trainer and founder of Train With Chelsy. "Most of the time they start, create forward momentum and end up having the greatest workout."
If you do make a solid effort with two to three moves and still can't find the energy or motivation, then maybe it's a sign you need a rest day (or want to consider employing some different tactics to light a fire under your butt).
2. Make It a Habit
Pushing yourself when working out is important, but it's also helpful to think about how you're encouraging consistency over the long term, says Lauryn Mohr, an exercise physiologist at Life Time Fitness in Omaha, Nebraska. Turning exercise into a habit will make it easier to get motivated and push yourself when working out.
"Schedule it, make it realistic, make it specific and make it consistent," Mohr says.
Literally, schedule your workouts into your calendar by designating specific days and times you plan to exercise. "A lot of times workouts go by the wayside because people 'don't have time,' but instead of having that mentality, approach it from the angle of, 'where can I make time?,'" she says.
Signing up and paying ahead for a group fitness class (either virtual or in real life) can also makes it easier to cement that workout into your plans.
When making plans, be realistic and specific. For example, establish if you can devote 30 minutes to a workout three times per week, and then plan out which days you'll do them. Choose a day and time when you won't be tempted to schedule over it, she says. Whether that's first thing in the morning, right after work or during your lunch break — you do what works for you and your lifestyle.
3. Try Shorter, More Intense Workouts
Going into marathon workouts can feel pretty daunting, but longer workouts aren't always the best option. Sometimes, shortening a workout will allow you to stay more consistent. It's exponentially better to do a shorter workout than skip exercising altogether because your planned workout seemed too long and intimidating.
An easy way to get the most out of a short workout: high-intensity interval training. By planning your workout with strategic intervals of all-out work and rest, you can really ramp up the intensity and work out harder in a short amount of time, Mohr says.
4. Find a Fitness Buddy or Community
Whether you've got one reliable fitness buddy or are part of a whole accountability team, having someone to help push you when your motivation is running thin can be huge.
The best accountability buddy is someone who has the same mindset as you and is working toward similar goals, Mohr says. "Someone who is just as committed, or even slightly more committed, can be helpful to drive your behaviors."
Trying to motivate yourself to work out alone? Use technology to your advantage. It makes it easier to find a sense of community.
There are multiple ways to go about finding a virtual fitness community.
First, see if anyone you know uses the same fitness trackers as you. Platforms like Apple Watch, Fitbit and My Fitness Pal enable you to connect with other users, see each other's workout progress and challenge people to move and hit their workout goals. Try sharing sweaty gym selfies on social media, or jumping on fitness challenges in which you tag your friends and inspire each other to move, she says.
Next, look into cardio equipment that offers on-demand and live group classes. Many of the best treadmills and indoor bikes now do!
5. Lean Into Positive Self-Talk
Setting an intention or coming up with a mantra before a workout, and then thinking about it when things get tough, can help you push through challenges, Mohr says. You can set an intention for the year, or pick a new one for every workout; try it out and see what works for you.
"Whatever the word or mantra is that's resonating with you, have that at the forefront of your mind and keep repeating it to yourself," she says.
Here are some to try out:
- Progress, not perfection
- Every little bit counts
- I'm doing this for me
- This is the feeling of my body getting stronger
- Consistency is everything
"Tap into that mid-workout and watch how much it empowers you," Pillsbury says. "
6. Incorporate Chipper Workouts
Chipper workouts combine a variety of exercises at high repetition, "chipping" away at the given number of reps one by one until they're finished. Think of it as a one-set workout, with all the reps you'd do across multiple sets just packed into one. While these workouts can be grueling, they can also trick your mind into pushing well past your normal boundaries.
Here's an example of a chipper workout:
- 50 burpees
- 50 double unders
- 50 kettlebell swings
- 50 bent-over dumbbell rows
Chippers are motivating and can help you push harder by giving yourself a mental finish line.
Plus, not only do you get to cross an exercise off your list once you're done with the prescribed number of reps, but counting down those reps — and seeing the number decrease as you go — gives you a sense of accomplishment and helps trick your brain into allowing your body to work out harder.
7. Learn What Hypes You Up
"Everybody is motivated a little bit differently," Mohr says. Figuring out what gets you amped up for a workout is critical to keep your motivation high when you need it most.
"Maybe you need to be in a group in order to push hard, maybe you need to feel superior, perhaps you need to be alone. Maybe you need a coach there to push you or cheer you on, or a video on the screen that sets a pace," Pillsbury says.
To figure it out, she suggests asking yourself: "When I have pushed myself the hardest and accomplished the most, what was happening then? What can I implement now to recreate what motivated me then?"
It could be as simple as what you listen to during a workout, she says. An awesome playlist, full of all your favorite pump-up songs, could be just what you need to get moving. Alternatively, listening to a motivational speaker, an audiobook or a podcast could be more your style. It's all about knowing what clicks for you and then making it a regular part of your routine.
8. Visualize What’s Happening Inside Your Body
"In the moment when your whole body is on fire, visualize your actual muscles and what they look like," Pillsbury says. "Visualize your skeletal system and your blood flowing through to relay nutrients and oxygen." She says this trick is "kinda weird, yet oddly effective."
You don't usually think about what's happening inside your body when you're feeling the burn and struggling to hold on for a few seconds longer. But what's happening under the struggle is that your muscles are breaking down so that your body can repair them and make you stronger,
"Visualizing it can make it all seem more tangible," she says. "You're literally training your muscles to adapt so they can prepare for this moment again without it being so hard. How cool is that?!"
Ready to push yourself? This 12-minute high-intensity interval workout will kick things into gear!